The cost of cortical computation

Curr Biol. 2003 Mar 18;13(6):493-7. doi: 10.1016/s0960-9822(03)00135-0.


Electrophysiological recordings show that individual neurons in cortex are strongly activated when engaged in appropriate tasks, but they tell us little about how many neurons might be engaged by a task, which is important to know if we are to understand how cortex encodes information. For human cortex, I estimate the cost of individual spikes, then, from the known energy consumption of cortex, I establish how many neurons can be active concurrently. The cost of a single spike is high, and this severely limits, possibly to fewer than 1%, the number of neurons that can be substantially active concurrently. The high cost of spikes requires the brain not only to use representational codes that rely on very few active neurons, but also to allocate its energy resources flexibly among cortical regions according to task demand. The latter constraint explains the investment in local control of hemodynamics, exploited by functional magnetic resonance imaging, and the need for mechanisms of selective attention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Action Potentials
  • Attention / physiology
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cell Count
  • Energy Metabolism*
  • Excitatory Postsynaptic Potentials
  • Hemodynamics
  • Humans
  • Linear Models
  • Models, Neurological
  • Neocortex / blood supply
  • Neocortex / cytology
  • Neocortex / physiology*
  • Neurons / physiology*
  • Neurotransmitter Agents / metabolism
  • Synaptic Transmission*
  • Time Factors


  • Neurotransmitter Agents